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  • Ask eAIR
  • 04.17.19

IR Professionals Do More Than Just Pull Data

  • by Bill Knight, Assistant Provost for Institutional Research and Effectiveness, Miami University

Dear Bill: I’ve noticed that leaders on many campuses perceive IR as being “too busy” to conduct the kinds of studies needed to understand the effectiveness of certain programs. Others might just perceive IR as pulling numbers, not researchers skilled in data analysis or designing assessments. What would you suggest for showing institutional leaders that IR can do more than just pull data or provide “official” numbers?

Knight-Photo-2019This is an important question that is often asked, but perhaps too seldom answered - and really thought about. Way back at the start of IR we seem to have been more respected by our institutional leaders and were more involved with critical campus issues. What happened? The volume of mandatory external reporting, college guidebook surveys, and ad hoc internal information requests has exploded, leaving little time for us to be working on strategic issues. While staffing has increased, on average, it has not kept pace with demands.

A hard truth is that the leadership sees no value at all in mandated external reporting. Its importance is only in avoiding the consequences of not complying. Especially when it is time to cut or reallocate budgets, the question is asked about what value IR is adding.

How can we demonstrate that we can add value? We can ask what we can stop doing, such as the college guidebooks surveys. My experience, however, is that few if any items can really come off our project list. If we don’t have them already, we can implement data warehousing/data visualization, and this probably will trim down our workload a bit.

So what else can we do? My best advice is to ask yourself what the greatest institutional priorities and priorities of the leadership are and then pick a few projects in those areas that you can try to squeeze out along with everything else. How do you know what the priorities are? Look at the institution’s strategic plan, recent accreditation reports, speeches of the president that are posted online or minutes of the Board of Trustees, university/faculty senate, etc. Improving student retention and graduation rates is always an issue. The free daily emails from the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. are other great sources of ideas.

Once you have identified some priority areas where you can work on a few additional projects as time permits, how should you proceed? One idea is to take advantage of the data compiled as a result of all of the federal and (if applicable) state reporting that we all do. You can go to the IPEDS Data Center and download all of the report data into an Access database with just a few clicks. Most state reporting systems provide some type of query or data download capability.

If you can go further, consider working with benchmarking studies for which you might be submitting data but have not used as a resource, such as the CSRDE, the AAUP or CUPA-HR faculty salary studies, or the Delaware Cost Study. These organizations charge for access to detailed data, so you  might suggest that if the Academic Affairs/President’s Office, etc. pay for access, then you will contribute your work.

If strategic issues at your institution include student success, student engagement, or students’ views and perceptions, you could look at surveys such as the NSSE and its sister surveys, the UCLA/HERI surveys, and any number of student satisfaction surveys that are available. Most of the organizations sponsoring these surveys provide access to the results, including reports and raw data.

What do you do with these resources once you have accessed them? Three good strategies for making meaning of the results are providing comparisons with peer institutions, trends over time, and group (e.g., by gender, major, faculty rank) differences. If your institution has not identified peers, you could start by looking at similar institutions (for example, other private institutions in the state or other institutions in the same basic Carnegie classification).

A big benefit of having a professional network and being able to attend the AIR Forum or regional or stage meetings of AIR-affiliated organizations is the ability to see the work others are doing. Try reaching out to others doing good work and ask if they would be willing to speak further.

How can doing more work be a good strategy if the underlying problem is too much work already? I am not saying to do everything that you possibly can, rather strategically pick one or two areas that are important to your institution and do some extra work. Then share the results with the leadership; don’t wait to be asked for it. I would be very surprised if you do not get a big thank you and an expression of appreciation for taking the initiative and doing critically-important work. If you are asked follow-up questions or to do more, then is the time to point out your current workload, but mainly indicate what else you could do if you had more staffing, better tools, could eliminate some current work, etc. Once you have demonstrated that you have the capacity to do more in strategically important areas, the conversation about your office may change substantially for the better.

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